LONDON — London. - "The darkest thing about Africa is our ignorance of it,'' they used to say back in the 1950s before the independence struggle, the wars of liberation, the demise of colonialism, the interposition of the Cold War, the ravages of famine and the curse of AIDS seemed collectively to thrust images of violence and despair daily across our breakfast tables.
Now the light has been switched off and, if our media are the judges, Africa can return to its own dismal devices, with only a flickering residual interest in what will happen when the blacks take power in the exhausted ex-bastion of white supremacy, South Africa.
But did we, the outside world, ever really understand Africa, or did we allow ourselves to become voyeurs, titillated by the images that conformed to our stereotypes?
Did we ever, for more than a passing moment, stop to question how the urban European civilizations profoundly unsettled tribal, mainly village societies, that while clearly not as developed in the urban industrial sense, had achieved a sophisticated balance with the devastating forces of the rude African climate and geomorphology?
Even more important, the African way of life had brought to maturity a rare type of personality, one that is genuinely open, careless of guile, and unusually self-effacing.
There is, needless to say, war and enmity aplenty in Africa, but when it is over it is over. Africans seem to be able to put the past behind them with alacrity. Not for them the memories of distant pogroms, ancient feuds or unresolvable differences. Africans, TC even when blood has been shed, tend to give compromise the benefit of the doubt, and assume the lion and the lamb can lie down together.
Compare the forthright good will of a Nelson Mandela with the perpetual mistrust of a Yasser Arafat, or the way the Yugoslavs pitilessly and relentlessly rework and reopen old sores, with the attitude of the Ethiopians, Nigerians and Zimbabweans, who now consign to oblivion old divisions.
These are the reasons, briefly put, why Africa, despite its legion of real problems, does have a bright future. Indeed there is one other good reason why 1992 may well prove the continent's turning point -- the post-colonial malaise has worked its course.
Nearly three-quarters of the 47 countries south of the Sahara are now in various stages of political liberalization.
Africa, it appeared, jumped effortlessly from the despotism of colonial rule to the megalomania of the ''great leader.'' For all the justification of the need for centralized authority to ward off tribal division and ethnic conflict, autocratic rule from above by a single individual was not, in fact, part of the African character. Talking, arguing and negotiating were all prized virtues of
traditional government, and today the tide of popular opinion is rapidly pushing African governments to acquiesce in democracy a modernized version of this.
The move has been egged on by the revulsion against the near-continuous economic decline that has plagued much of the continent, by the witness of the dramatic events in Eastern Europe and the decision of the white oligarchy in South Africa to move toward one man, one vote.
Political reform has been preceded by economic reform. Rather than put money into a bottomless pit, Western aid donors together with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have used the threat of a cut-off in financial support to reinforce domestic disenchantment with state control of economic activity.
While the purge has not yet produced any widespread signs of renewed economic life or foreign investment -- certainly nothing to match the burst of enthusiasm straight after independence -- nevertheless, the reforms, if sometimes heavy-handed and insensitive, have helped stop the rot and made it feasible to consider a wiser way of using scarce resources.
And then there is the end of the Cold War.
If Asia had Korea and Vietnam, and Latin America had El Salvador and Nicaragua, Africa was drawn and quartered by East-West proxy rivalries.
Without the Cold War, the great civil wars in the Congo, Nigeria, Angola and Ethiopia would have been far less bloody. The Libyan invasion of Chad would have been less likely and the brutal dictatorships of Idi Amin in Uganda, Ahmed Sekou Toure in Guinea and Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia of shorter duration.
At long last the terrible wars that have consumed so much African talent and resources are winding down. Only Liberia, Somalia and the Sudan remain embroiled in civil war.
Fortunately, Africa, unlike other continents, has been largely spared interstate wars, a legacy of the foresight of the first generation of post-independence African leaders, who made the explicit decision in 1963 that, despite all the illogicalities of the inherited colonial boundaries, they would abide by them.
Life in Africa is entering a new season. Pliny the Elder wrote two thousand years ago that there was always something new out of Africa. Could 1992 be Africa's year?
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.